Here’s the secret: First, find yourself a dairy cow (or in a pinch, just some fresh milk). Keep it cold. Second, you’ll need sugar, salt, yeast, eggs, spring water, and high-protein flour. Now, all you’re missing is the butter — the best high-fat butter you can get your hands on. Import it from Poitou-Charentes if you have to. Next, move to a cool place and mix the ingredients, by hand. Let the yeast come alive(!) for 5-10 minutes in a warm mixture of water and sugar. Add some of the butter, melted and cooled, then the flour, and then the salt. Knead the resulting dough, stopping as soon as it becomes homogeneous and smooth — no more than three or so minutes for the average hands. Let the dough proof in the fridge for about an hour. Once it has, shape it into a rectangle, cover it, and stick it in your freezer overnight. Now grab the rest of the butter, shape that into a rectangle half as large as the dough’s, cover it, and stick that in the fridge overnight as well. Get a good night’s sleep so that you’re well rested and ready to laminate the dough in the morning. Remove the dough from the freezer; as soon as it’s pliable, remove the butter from the fridge. Place the butter on the dough and fold the dough over it so that it seals the butter in. Roll it out over a cool surface (like marble), fold it in three, cover it, and stick it back in the fridge for a few hours. Take it out, and do it all over again: roll, fold, cover, and fridge. You can repeat this process several times. Once you’ve had enough, remove the dough, roll it out, slice the edges so that you have a rectangle; slice the rectangle in half; and slice each half into triangles. Make a notch bisecting the base of each triangle, roll the base toward the tip, and curve the edges away from the tip, forming a pretty little moon. Put the little moons on a tray, cover them, and proof them in a warm, draft-free place for a couple of hours. Brush them with an egg wash, bake them and, most important of all, eat them within a few hours. Eat them all!
If you followed the steps correctly, something amazing should have happened – something light but richly buttery, differentiated but whole, with a golden shell that flakes and shatters as you bite into it, but with a blonde interior that stretches moistly as you chew: a croissant. C’est magnifique!
Alternatively, you could just go to one of several wonderful bakeries in our neighborhoods that have mastered the art of making this world-renowned pastry, thereby having joined a tradition that traces its roots back to…well, that’s an interesting question. And that’s where we should start.
Like French poodles, berets, and can-can dancing, the croissant is famously associated with France. But like all those, it’s not, strictly speaking, French in origin. Several legends home in on the pastry’s crescent shape to locate the croissant’s origin in 18th century Vienna or even medieval Gaul. In both accounts, the invention of the croissant arises as a celebration of a military victory over invading muslim forces. In the case of the latter, it is the Franks, led by Charles Martel, repelling the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of Tours in 732. In the case of the former and more widespread legend, it is the Battle of Vienna of 1683, a failed siege of the city by Ottoman Turks (a battle that, incidentally, also spawned apocryphal tales about the invention of the bagel and cappuccino). During the siege, the story goes, bakers, who worked in cellars early in the morning, discovered tunnels being dug by the invading forces and sounded the alarm, leading to the defeat of the Ottomans. It is said that they then baked pastries in the shape of the crescent moon — the image at the center of the Ottoman flag -– to commemorate the occasion.
In truth, no one knows the precise origins of the croissant. Most believe that the pastry derived from the kipfel, a simple, bread-like, crescent-shaped roll found in Vienna and eastern Europe as far back as the 13th century. The kipfel is found in numerous styles throughout the region to this day. Some are savory and almost bagel-like, others encrusted with nuts, and yet others sugared and served as Christmas cookies. Why crescent shaped? Good question.
At some point, the kipfel made its way to France. Despite rumors that it was Austrian-born Marie Antoinette who brought the pastry to Versailles after she married Louis XVI in 1770, there is little evidence that she did (and if she had, the news would have gotten around). It would, at any rate, take several more decades for the imported pastry to become popular in France. Credit for its popularity typically goes to Austrian baker August Zang, who along with Ernest Schwartzer, ran La Boulangerie Viennoise during the late 1930s on Paris’ Right Bank. While this bakery operated for only a couple of years, its attractive displays and pastries set off a craze for “viennoiseries” (to this day the French word for pastries with a bread-like base).
By the mid-19th century, the already shuttered La Boulangerie Viennoise had imitators throughout Paris. And with imitation came the impulse to innovate. Among the innovations, one in particular transformed the kipfel by the early 20th century into something far closer to the croissant we know today: butter. Parisian bakers started using pâte feuilletée (the history of which goes back to Arab cooking during the Middle Ages, and which, up to this point, had functioned in French cooking primarily as a shell for containing other ingredients) and adding yeast to it. This produced the differentiation, puffiness, and flakiness that came to define croissants.
Perhaps the next critical juncture in the history of the croissant resulted from industrial advances that allowed the pastry’s mass production and dissemination well beyond France, making them available throughout this country. By the middle of the 20th century, the most commonly consumed croissant, not just in the United States, but even in France, had become the frozen, neatly packed, preservative-laden variety that one finds at any supermarket. The latter part of the century saw a surge in croissant popularity. This allowed us to buy croissant sandwiches at places like Burger King and Arby’s during the 1980s. Luckily, the 1980s passed, and a growing interest in artisanal products sustained a commitment by some bakeries to the refinement of traditional methods and the experimentation grounded upon them. The latter gave us the notorious cronut and the pretzel croissant. But it is the former that served as our focus during our recent and all too brief survey of croissants in our neighborhoods.
Patisserie Claude (187 West 4th Street)
Our first stop was at a Greenwich Village institution and 2017 Village Award winner, the tiny but formidable Patisserie Claude, a Parisian-style pastry shop launched by Breton baker Claude le Brenne during the early 1980s. The notoriously temperamental Claude and his affable assistant from the Dominican Republic, Pablo Valdez, prepared for decades a variety of éclairs, brioches, tarts, mousses, and, of course, croissants. Claude retired in 2008. Luckily for its many devoted patrons (and for those who have yet to discover the place), he left the patisserie in the capable hands of Pablo, who after over twenty years working alongside Claude had mastered his boss’ repertoire.
The slightly sweet outer shell of the Claude croissant has a surprisingly crispy bite. Its crumb is denser than one would expect, given its lightness. For that reason, if we were to make a sandwich with a croissant, this would be our choice. Which is not to say that it’s not delicious on its own. It has a rich and pleasantly yeasty flavor.
Patisserie Fouet (15 E 13th St)
Our next stop was Patisserie Fouet, located at a charming, historic building at 15 E 13th Street (click here to find out more about its history). The brainchild of Japanese chef Yoshie Shirakawa, Patisserie Fouet makes a wide range of desserts in the French tradition: macarons, cakes, mousses, verrines, and cookies, many of them with a Japanese twist. She also makes a variety of croissants, both sweet and savory.
The croissant at Patisserie Fouet was generously proportioned, which is to say, large. It boasted a classic balance between the flakiness of the crust and the chewiness of the crumb, as well as the expected buttery flavor. Its lightness fell somewhere in between the three we sampled.
Le Fournil (115 2nd Avenue)
Our last stop was at the East Village bakery that took the place of Moishe’s Bake Shop, which had occupied the spot since the 1970s, when it took it over from Ratner’s Bake House. We are talking about Le Fournil, a traditional boulangerie owned and operated by third generation Norman baker Jean-François Hebert. Beyond doing a wonderful job renovating the space, Hebert makes a great baguette, a few sandwiches, and a variety of wonderful tarts, macarons, and viennoiseries, including — you know it — croissants!
The Le Fournil croissant was flakey and moist with an assertive buttery flavor. It was the lightest and airier of the ones we sampled, and a delicious note on which to end our tour.